Depending on which side you believed in federal court Monday, Markos Baghdasarian is either a trader or a traitor.
Count one: Conspiracy to violate the Iran Trade Embargo & Iranian Transactions RegulationsCount two: Violation of Iran embargoCount three: Making false statement
The former president of Delfin Group USA in North Charleston is accused of sneaking his company’s products into trade-sanctioned Iran.
On the opening day of his trial in Charleston, prosecutors described Baghdasarian as a cunning and savvy businessman who went to great lengths to peddle his products in a land that is off-limits to American businesses.
His attorney, however, portrayed Baghdasarian as a much different man, one who conducted business by the book and “exudes good faith.”
Baghdasarian, 49, sat next to his attorney and closely monitored every movement in the courtroom. He has much at stake, facing a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $1.2 million fine.
Baghdasarian is charged with three counts involving accusations of conspiring to violate the trade embargo against Iran, illegally exporting goods to Iran and making false statements on federal documents, according to federal prosecutors.
The all-female jury listened to opening statements made in the morning. Elizabeth Cannon, a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Division, began her arguments by telling the jury Baghdasarian tried to outsmart the United States.
“The case you’re about to hear is about one thing: a destination,” she said.
Baghdasarian considered many different countries, Cannon said, before he set out on his plan. Prosecutors say he shipped $850,000 worth of aviation lubricating oils and polymers to buyers in Iran. He first shipped the items to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where the goods were repackaged and placed in new containers and shipped to Iran, according to Cannon. “The defendant knew exactly where the products were going,” Cannon said.
Baghdasarian lied on shipping documents and routed payments through Dubai, she said. E-mail communications between Baghdasarian and co-conspirators will be presented to the jury, which Cannon said will serve as powerful evidence against him.
Baghdasarian met with his Iranian co-conspirators at least four times over the course of a year, according to Cannon.
His attorney, Bart Daniel, told the jury his client is innocent and did what he was supposed to do when shipping his company’s products. “He exudes good faith,” Daniel said.
Delfin Group USA’s plant is located along the banks of the Cooper River on a 42-acre compound on Virginia Avenue in North Charleston. Daniel told the jury Baghdasarian left a high-paying job to start the company and was in it for the “long term.”
Baghdasarian, who is a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent, will testify later this week, according to Daniel, who asked the jury to give him the same benefit of the doubt as those with the last name “Smith.”
Baghdasarian looked into his customers before shipping to them, Daniel told the jury. “Markos did his due diligence before shipping to Dubai,” he said.
Daniel argued that Baghdasarian sold his products at normal market price and that black market or illegal items are usually priced much higher.
He also pointed to the fact that Delphin has a parent company, Delphin Russia, which is allowed to legally sell the same product to Iran.
According to Daniel, they could have done it themselves and at a higher profit margin.
On Aug. 25, U.S. Customs officials grew suspicious about a delivery of eight cargo containers from Delfin to a general trading company in the United Arab Emirates, court papers said.
The shipment was ultimately cleared for delivery, but when Customs learned that 11 more containers were bound for two companies in Dubai in October, investigators tracked the shipments with electronic devices. One of the shipments was tracked to Iran, court documents stated.
Following Baghdasarian’s arrest, Delfin Group USA placed him on administrative leave from the company. The trial is expected to last four to five days.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.